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Atomic Energy Research Establishment

The Atomic Energy Research Establishment near Harwell, Oxfordshire was the main centre for atomic energy research and development in the United Kingdom from the 1940s to the 1990s.


In 1945 John Cockcroft was asked to set up a research laboratory in order to further the use of atomic reactions for generating energy. According to the stories he was looking for a site not too close to centres of population, yet also within convenient distance from a major university. He chose a wartime airfield, RAF Harwell, some sixteen miles south of Oxford, and on January 1 1946 the Atomic Energy Research Establishment (AERE) was formed, coming under the Ministry of Supply. The scientists mostly took over both accommodations and work buildings from the departing RAF.

Early Reactors

Such was the interest in nuclear power and the resources devoted to it in those days that the first reactor, GLEEP, was operating by August of 1947 - an astonishing feat given the resource problems of immediate post-war Britain. GLEEP (Graphite Low Energy Experimental Pile) was a graphite-moderated low energy reactor. The first reactor in Europe, it was remarkably long-lived, continuing in operation until 1990. A successor to GLEEP, called BEPO (British Experimental Pile 0) was constructed based on the experience with GLEEP, and commenced operation in 1948. BEPO was shut down in 1968.

A pair of larger (but still small) power reactors, DIDO and PLUTO, were commissioned and came online in 1956. They also continued in operation until 1990.


One of the most significant experiments to occur at AERE was the ZETA nuclear fusion experiment. An early attempt to build a large-scale nuclear fusion reactor, the project was started in 1954, and the first successes were achieved in 1957. In 1958 the project was shut down, as it was believed that no further progress could be made with the kind of design that ZETA represented. (see Timeline of nuclear fusion).

Organisational History

In 1954 AERE was incoporated into the newly formed United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA). Harwell and other laboratories were to assume responsibility for atomic energy research and development. It was part of the Department of Trade and Industry.

During the 1980s the slowdown of the British nuclear energy program resulted in a greatly reduced demand for the kind of work being done by the UKAEA. Pressures on government spending also reduced the funding available. Reluctant to merely disband a quality scientific research organisation, UKAEA was required to divert its research effort to the solving of scientific problems for industry by providing paid consultancy or services. UKAEA was ordered to operate on a 'trading fund' basis, i.e. to account for itself financially as though it was a private corporation, while remaining fully government owned. After several years of transition, UKAEA was divided in the early 1990s. UKAEA retained ownership of all land and infrastructure and of all nuclear facilities, and of businesses directly related to nuclear power. The remainder was privatised as AEA Technology and floated on the London Stock Exchange. Harwell Laboratory contained elements of both organisations, though the land and infrastructure was owned by UKAEA.

The name Atomic Energy Research Establishment was dropped at the same time, and the site became known as the Harwell International Business Centre.

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